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HOLY COW! HISTORY: Speaking of the Speaker…

For the second time this year, Americans will be treated to the spectacle of watching the House of Representatives select a speaker. It isn’t always pretty, as January’s prolonged process demonstrated. However, the outcome is important because whoever ultimately emerges to lead the 435-member body will have a huge job on his or her hands. The House speaker is, after all, responsible for one-half of one-third of the federal government. (Or 1/6th for math purists.)

Yet, Americans don’t know much about the people who have wielded the gavel throughout history. You rarely see their faces on postage stamps, paper money or coins. Which is a shame, because there were some interesting characters among the 54 men and one woman who held the job over the last 234 years.

Take Frederick Muhlenberg, for instance. A Lutheran pastor by profession, he felt a different calling during the Revolutionary War and added politics to his portfolio. After serving in the Continental Congress and Pennsylvania’s legislature, he was elected to the brand-new U.S. Congress, becoming the House’s very first speaker on April 1, 1789. He later cast the deciding vote on the measure making the District of Columbia the infant nation’s capital.

Muhlenberg is believed by some to be the person who insisted the chief executive be referred to with the simple “Mr. President” rather than the grander “His Elected Majesty” or “His High Mightiness” pushed by John Adams. (The historical evidence to back that claim is sketchy.) Either way, he served a second time as speaker and was so respected by his colleagues they named him the first Dean of the House of Representatives. (Currently held by Kentucky’s Hal Rogers, that honor goes to the longest-serving House member.)

As the news media reminded us recently, Kevin McCarthy was the first speaker to lose the job in a no-confidence vote. But while his 269-day tenure was the shortest in 140 years, it is far from the shortest ever. That distinction belongs to New York Republican Theodore Pomeroy, who was elected to the position for just one day — March 3, 1869. Pomeroy’s term ended the very next day, and his colleagues gave him the job as a show of respect on his way out. A parting gift, if you will.

Sam Rayburn was an entirely different story. A rough and tumble Texas Democrat, “Mr. Sam” held the gavel for 17 years, two months, and two days — the longest in history. (If you’ve been to Washington, the Rayburn House Office Building is named in his memory.) Though they weren’t 17 consecutive years, his speakership was served in three stints between 1940 and 1961, with Joe Martin taking over in 1947 and again in 1953 as control of the House ping-ponged between Democrats and Republicans. 

It became something of a running joke on Capitol Hill, with Rayburn saying, “Here you go, Joe,” as he handed the gavel to his GOP counterpart and Martin saying, “Take it, Sam,” when he handed it back.

Speaking of Joe Martin … Ohio and Virginia each like to claim to be the “Mother of Presidents,” but when it comes to House speakers, that title unequivocally belongs to Massachusetts. Martin was one of eight Bay Staters who held the position.

You may think last January’s drawn-out drama when McCarthy was finally elected on the 15th ballot was one for the ages. And you would be wrong. Nathaniel Banks (from — where else? — Massachusetts) was chosen speaker in 1856 after 133 rounds of voting that dragged on for two months. (By the way, Banks changed political parties like the seasons during his speakership, moving from the Democratic to the American Party, and then on to the Republicans before finally settling in being an independent.)

The youngster speaker was Robert M.T. Hunter of Virginia, elected at age 30 in 1839; the oldest was Illinois’ Henry Rainey, selected at 72 in 1933. Five died in office.

Kentuckian Henry Clay and William Pennington of New Jersey were the only freshmen members ever elected speaker. James K. Polk was the first speaker to become president. And seven speakers — including Clay, Martin, Muhlenberg and Rayburn — were later re-elected for a second tenure. (The others being John W. Taylor, Thomas Reed and Nancy Pelosi.)

So, what will Speaker No. 56 contribute to the position’s legacy? Stay tuned; we’ll find out shortly.

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POWELL: House Republicans Should Look To FDR for the Road Forward

Eight Republicans joined 208 Democrats to oust Kevin McCarthy as speaker of the House of Representatives and opened the door for unforeseen consequences.

There are many paths to leadership in Congress, but the tried-and-true route is having the ability and willingness to raise money to help elect candidates. As CNN reported, “Kevin McCarthy raised $21.7 million in the second quarter in 2023 … bringing the total amount he raised this cycle to $62.5 million.” The story reports that money was transferred with “$17.6 million (going to) the House Republicans’ campaign arm, the National Republican Congressional Committee, and $8.3 million directly to GOP incumbents.”

Whoever is elected speaker may face challenges raising money because most donors do not want drastic and unmanageable change, the impeachment of President Biden, or a government shutdown. So, the conference may lack funds to protect members in 2024.

Republicans lament that they lack the party discipline asserted by Nancy Pelosi when she was speaker. She had to manage the radical fringe members known as the “Squad,” but there was never a peep that they would oust her if they did not get everything they wanted. The glue that holds Democrats together is that they are the “party of more.” Every member will get at least part of what they want at some point, but they need to stick together. On vital issues, they vote as one because no caucus member wants to go to the back of the line or be primaried in the next election.

Republicans govern as the “party of less” without a doable plan for getting there. The Republican radical minority is openly critical of leaders who do not support every part of their agenda and want bills brought to the floor that cannot pass and create issues for more moderate members. That is not a recipe for organizational cohesion or long-term success. They would rather be philosophically pure in the minority than in a majority that had to compromise with Democrats.

On the other hand, The New York Times reported there are “18 Republicans who represent districts that Joseph R. Biden Jr. won in 2020. Many of these lawmakers, who include 11 newcomers, have indicated a greater willingness to work on bipartisan legislation than their peers.” 

The trouble with the moderate approach is that compromise still provides Democrats with “more” and leaves Republicans to explain why they can’t control spending, making either approach a lose-lose for House Republicans.

Many Republican purists point to Ronald Reagan as the true north star of conservatism. They do not understand that Reagan was a pragmatist and an excellent issues manager. He kept his focus on the big things and was always willing to bargain to get or keep what was most important to him. Reagan’s profile by the National Governors Association captured these skills as governor of California: “During his first term, Reagan temporarily stopped government hiring to slow the growth of the state workforce, but he also approved tax increases to balance the state budget. He cut funding for the University of California, a center of the student protest movement of the late 1960s, but after protests died down, he increased funding for higher education.” 

He did the same as president when he never enjoyed Republican control of both houses of Congress, building his brand by linking his policies to growing prosperity in America. House Republicans have no idea how to grow support using the effective management of issues.

The first move of the next speaker must be the right move for moving America forward. Neither impeaching Biden nor disrupting the government by shutting it down are issues that grow support for Republicans or alter their current course toward contraction. The speaker will need to gain control of the narrative, and to do that he needs to address big issues that matter to the American people and craft workable solutions.

That will require carefully selecting a problem they can solve (not a process issue like regular order) and delivering small results quickly to show that House Republicans can be trusted to craft a bigger solution. 

Republicans should look to Reagan for inspiration but also to Franklin Roosevelt to learn how he asked for and was given permission to fundamentally change the relationship between the American people and the federal government before he enacted his New Deal beginning in 1933.

This is a requirement for a party that wants to rethink how the government delivers services and change the trajectory of government spending. FDR built momentum and support throughout his first term in office because he solved well-framed problems by delivering measurable results. The next speaker should understand that action needs to build support. 

House Republicans need to be focused on things that matter to the American people and on leaving the American people wanting more of what Republicans are delivering. That is what FDR did in building a governing coalition that would last for generations.

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